Siberian God-mother: an interview with Natasha Gorelova

first Liturgy in Akademgorodok (July 1991)

In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally “Academic Town.” Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments as well as the campus of the University of Novosibirsk. John Le Carre’s novel, The Russia House, features a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.

It was taken for granted by its founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” It was only in the Gorbachev era that religious life in unchurched places could finally come into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish — All Saints — in Akademgorodok formed by scientists and babushkas together.

In June 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the town’s first Liturgy. It was Pentecost, called Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday in Russia. Lacking a church building, the parish plus various curious on-lookers met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. Halfway through the service, it began to rain. Soon it was a downpour. On Troitsa Sunday, there are lengthy “kneeling prayers” at the end of the Liturgy. Everyone was soaked to the bones. It was a collective baptism by immersion.

No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.

She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10. Akademgorodok (Academic Town) is a suburb of Siberia’s largest city, Novosibirsk. Set up in the fifties, Akademgorodok accommodates twenty research centers of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences, including the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry.

The interview with her took place in the living room of her apartment.

— Jim Forest

Natasha, tell me about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up.

I saw born in Siberia in a coal mining town which became famous last year when the miners went on strike. I was baptized when I was one year old, but I never visited a church in my childhood. I never thought about church. I never knew who the priest was. But I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying. I was a Young Pioneer and in the summer went to Pioneer camps with a lot of other children. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying. However I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ. It isn’t the same thing to say, “I have come to God” and “I have come to Christ.”

What brought about your conversion?

Probably it is typical for my generation. About the time I was 25 many new thoughts came into my head, new feelings, and I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country – realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I suddenly realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. It was intolerable. But I didn’t think I could leave or even should leave. I didn’t think there was some other place where I could be happy, some foreign paradise – Australia or Arizona!

Thinking about it, I felt very depressed. I even thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had no personal bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I liked my parents. I had successfully defended my thesis and had my degree.

I thought that I couldn’t be the only one suffering this way. There must someone else. And perhaps this other had already found the way. I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?

I was working on my doctoral degree at that time and happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. Surprising! The context was an explanation of positive and negative feedback. The book gave an example from the Gospel and the saying of Christ, If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well. The book said that this is a statement that is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it my refusing to repeat evil actions. You keep them to yourself. You leave it to the final point.

This saying of Jesus made me think. I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our public transportation, our buses, and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, “Please, why don’t you move to this side?” or “Please sit here” — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness.

I came to the conclusion that the hypothesis in the Gospel was correct. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.

It’s harder to demonstrate mathematically.

You are right. But finally I realized that if the Resurrection is not true then the whole book is false. In that case Christ was the greatest liar of this world. If Christ says, “I am the way, I am the truth,” but it is not true, then there is nothing else to say. It is useless to think further about Christianity anymore. At that time it seemed to me the choice was Nietzsche or Christ. These were the two theories that I found most logical and most developed.

At this point, like others before me, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, “Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.” I decided to do it, to knock on the door until it opened.

At that time I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. I had good friends — poets, writers, scientists. They wanted to help me but they couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.

The first believers I met were Baptists. A Baptist gave me my first Gospel. They were very hopeful I would become one of them. They said, “Very soon we will have a good speaker among us!” I was considered a good speaker with a good style. Yet I wasn’t able to become a Baptist. I didn’t feel at home in the Baptist church.

At that time I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old, standing in the Orthodox church. But when I was in Moscow I was lucky to meet some people who were Orthodox believers. I was able to read about the Liturgy and the sacraments and what it means to receive communion. Still there was a lot I didn’t understand and no one could explain it to me.

While in Moscow, I finally went inside an Orthodox church. I hadn’t planned to before, but while I was there I decided to go up to the priest for confession just as others were doing. I had never been to confession and didn’t fully understand what it was. The priest asked me only one question, if I followed the fasting rules for Wednesday and Friday. He assumed I was used to being in church. I had read about the fasting rules and was already practicing them. So I said with great pride, “How can you ask! I don’t even drink water on Wednesday and Friday!” If he had asked more questions he would have found I wasn’t at all as I must have seemed from that one answer. I knew about fasting days but I had never heard that you were supposed to fast on the day you receive communion — I had eaten breakfast that morning. But the priest didn’t ask and I didn’t know. He gave me a blessing but I didn’t understand that he was blessing me to receive communion.

Later in the Liturgy, when he had finished giving communion, some believers looked at me and said, “But she didn’t go to the cup!” They were staring at me, and I was so surprised! How had they noticed me? Some old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest to tell him I should receive communion, and so it happened. I received the holy gifts. Then the old women were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. It was the first time I experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the Eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I loved babushkas! I loved old women. And from that moment on all my doubts were gone. I was a believer.

Of course I know quite well, and I knew it then, that I am not such a pleasant person. Too often I’m not kind. Friends sometimes say, “Natasha, why are you so intolerant? Believers should be tolerant.” I say, “Listen, it’s not that I’m intolerant. I’m impatient.” It’s like trying to explain a mathematical theorem to someone. I understand it quite well and want my friend to understand it too. But if my friend doesn’t get it right away, I became annoyed. I have a tendency to the same impatience when talking to others about religious truth. This is my problem. But I am very lucky with my friends. They are very kind, very tolerant, very patient. Perhaps they are praying to God to give me patience and to forgive me my impatience.

Nonetheless you have inspired many people to be baptized.

I have more than forty god-children! About fifteen are adults and the others are children. You met my first god-daughter two days ago, the archaeologist with seven children. She accepted baptism at my request, even though she wasn’t yet completely a believer. After baptism she no longer had any doubts. The same thing happened with another friend. Her husband — he was a biologist by profession — became a priest and now serves at a church in a small town. Those who were baptized at my urging then turned to their friends, asking them to get baptized.

But to get baptized doesn’t necessarily mean you are a believer. There are millions of people who are baptized but who aren’t believers.

Among my god-children almost all of them are going to church. They are believers. They never come to me by accident. Yes, it might happen, but I think people understand that I have a very serious attitude about this. Even the god-children of my god-children are taking it seriously. There are a few not coming to church but I think they will return eventually.

How do you prepare people for their baptism?

It varies in each case. Often it happens in a strange way. I remember one elderly woman. I said to her, “Listen, I cannot go on living if you aren’t baptized.” I begged her, for my sake, to get baptized. She was slow to agree. She kept hesitating. There was no possibility to talk her into it with theological arguments. That would have been useless. Finally she decided to do it. I went to Father Boris to ask about what I was doing — convincing her to be baptized even though she really didn’t believe in anything. Father Boris said, “It is already a lot that she agrees to be baptized just because she wants to be obedient to you.” What happened later was something to see. After baptism, she really became a new person. It was amazing. Still she doesn’t know very much. If you ask her, perhaps she will say things about Christianity that are quite wrong, real stupidities. But she can pray. She likes to pray. She likes to be in church. Her life has changed in a deep way.

I think of my friend Tamara. Once she invited me for dinner. At the time we were just acquaintances. It turned out she had cooked chicken. I said, “Tamara, please, I’m not eating meat right now. It’s Lent.” Tamara got pale and said, “Please, Natasha, but I don’t know anything about that. Tell me what it’s all about.” We spent several nights talking together. On the third night Tamara said, “In the morning I want to go to the church to be baptized.” And she did.

Sometimes it is the children who lead the adults, convincing their parents to be baptized. I remember years ago here in Akademgorodok there was a very troubled child, six years old. He was agitated, hyper-active, often ill. The parents were not at all believers but they had the idea that they should get him baptized — just a gesture. They had no intention of further contact with the Church. His father, a member of the Communist Party, had a high position. He didn’t want it known that he had his son baptized. It was difficult making the arrangements but finally it happened. As the child grew up, he became more and more interested in Christ and Christianity, eventually going to church quite openly, praying openly. Sometimes adults were saying to the boy, “There is no god in this world,” he answered, “Ha! So you say, but I know about God for sure.” In the end he brought his parents into the Church.

When did the local Orthodox community come together?

It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, “Why is it that I don’t see you in church?” If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions – the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.

What do you think of ecumenism?

I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, “Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.”

This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.

Who helped you find your way?

Father Boris. It was my meeting with him in 1980 that began determining my life within the Church. For me, he is an absolute authority. In all the aspects of his life, he is an example and inspiration.

[At this point the translator told how one day in 1982 she went to the cathedral in Novosibirsk, looking for Father Boris, hoping he would baptize her. He wasn’t there but his brother, Father Alexander, a well known priest who had once been a prisoner for two years, was visiting, and he baptized her.]

It is very important that Father Boris is with us. We would be helpless without him. But if he is with us, we will have everything: a community, a church, everything we need.

How did it happen that the discussion group became a worshiping group?

The most important moment was last January when we celebrated Theophany [the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus]. For the first time in the history of Akademgorodok we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a very cold day, more than 30 degrees centigrade below zero. A great many people came to receive the blessed water, not only old women but young girls and boys, mothers with their children, and men as well. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen pouring so much water in that cold weather. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. I hadn’t mean to help because I wasn’t well. I just wanted to come for two minutes to get some blessed water. But once I got there I couldn’t leave.

How do local people who have no former relation to the church respond?

That day a woman saw we were cold and invited us to her house to eat. We had no idea who she was. We ate a little and got warm and then went back to give out more blessed water.

Because the service was in the center of town, a lot of people who were just passing by stopped and came over to watch and ask questions. Some were from the elder generation — they had been baptized but hadn’t been to church since they were children. But after this event they paid attention to us. When they saw a notice about a service in the newspapers, they paid attention. In this way it became more and more widely spread.

Since the beginning of this year, most of the important events on the church calendar have been celebrated in Akademgorodok. We put notices up on the door on the bakeries, places like that: The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.

How do local people who think of themselves as atheists or unbelievers respond to an Orthodox community in Akademgorodok?

I think some are actually happy about it. Many are thinking, really for the first time, about atheist ideas. There are others who stick with their old slogans about atheism. Some of them are quite irritated by us. There was a man behind me in line a few days ago. I heard him say to someone else, “Those people aren’t believers, they are deceivers.” I turned around and asked him, “But why do you think so?” “I know for certain,” he said. I could see he was a veteran from the war — he had on a medal. I told him that the day before a few believers, myself among them, were at a home for veterans doing voluntary service. I asked him, “Do you ever go there?” He admitted that he hadn’t been. He wanted to argue about the Church but I wouldn’t argue.

You could notice at the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday some people on the edge watching, a few of them making fun of us. Others came and watched in a respectful way or even started to cross themselves and pray. In the service after the Liturgy on Troitsa Sunday [a special service when believers kneel during a series of long readings], many knelt right there on the street even though by then the rain was heavy and the pavement was like a river. Some were people I had never seen before.

And what about the local political authorities?

In the middle of May the local Soviet voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church. The problem here is that it is not only the local elected representatives that decide but the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There is also the issue of where the church will be. We want it to be near the center of Akademgorodok, on the edge of the forest where we had the outdoor Liturgy on Sunday. This is a place that would be convenient for everyone and easy to get for old people and those who come by bus. The local Soviet has suggested three locations — one in the cemetery, one near a neighboring town, another at a nearby settlement — but nothing within Akademgorodok. I think in the end they will agree to our proposal. Many people — 2000 — have signed a petition in support of our proposal.

How did you choose this name for the local Church?

It was hard to decide. I wanted it to be named for the Transfiguration. Father Boris suggested dedicating it to the Holy Trinity. Some of the young people in the community wanted to name it for the New Martyrs, the sufferers from the Soviet period, but in our discussions it was finally agreed that to take that name would be more a political than a religious act. The name finally chosen was a compromise. If you name the community after all the saints of Russia, the New Martyrs are there also. God knows it very well, better than we.

Is there any connection between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-Semitic groups?

None. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, “There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.” The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, “Better sclerosis of the liver than such a `memory.'” [The word “pamyat” means memory and is especially associated with requiem prayers for the dead.]

The Church has both divine and human elements. What do you find disturbing in the Church’s human side?

I have been lucky from the beginning because I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was quite sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people.

That’s Christianity — not to judge. Very hard sometimes.

I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated. We cannot make a judgment about the declaration of Metropolitan Sergei [made after his release from prison in 1927, calling on believers to recognize the Soviet Union as their “civic motherland”]. Maybe thanks to such a declaration we had saints we will know about in the next life. These hard times that our country has witnessed and is facing now — so much evil and criminality — can give birth to people of remarkable virtues, even sanctity.

There is an article some members of our community wrote about our church for an Orthodox newspaper published by the Church in Moscow. At the end we used a quotation from Metropolitan Antony [Bloom] in which he speaks both about the human aspect of the Church and about sanctity. It is from a speech he gave in 1967.

“Today,” he said, “from all the variety of beautiful holy things, from all the rich human possibilities, we are celebrating the memory of all the saints of Russia. They are people close to us by our blood, whose lives are interwoven with our own by the decisive events of history. We are celebrating people who are the real glory of our land and whose deeds of holiness bless us all. The types of holy people were various. Some of the Russian saints were living alone in remote places, others in cities. They include princes, monks, metropolitans and priests. There were lay people doing many different kinds of activities. There were iurodivii [holy fools for the sake of Christ]. All were appearing in our land not casually but at exact moments of Russian history when they could show their love of God through specific deeds. They are our joy, even if sometimes a tragic joy, sometimes part of our dark and terrible history. All the stages and epochs of our history are covered both by light and dark colors, red threads and golden embroidery. It always happens so that whenever sins were increasing, virtues were growing as well. Also in places where human cruelty was rising, new testimonies of God’s love were appearing simultaneously, born in human hearts, giving witness to God’s pity for us. If we really wish that all the parts of our souls were connected to the children of God, we should join these features of Russian holiness. Only then would we be united with those people who are continuing even now on the way of salvation in the Russian land, a difficult way, sometimes bloody, but always marked by never-ending love.”

[Natasha served some food]

Forgive me, it isn’t very good. I can cook or speak but not both at the same time.

You can’t be both Mary and Martha the same day.

I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.

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recorded in July 1991
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